Chlamydia trachomatis is a major etiologic agent of sexually transmitted diseases. Although C. trachomatis is a gram-negative pathogen, chlamydial infections are not generally thought of as endotoxin-mediated diseases. A molecular characterization of the acute immune response to chlamydia, especially with regard to the role of its lipopolysaccharide (LPS), remains to be undertaken. We extracted 15 mg of LPS from 5 x 10(12) C. trachomatis elementary bodies (EB) for analysis of structure and biological activity. When methylated lipid A was subjected to high-pressure liquid chromatography followed by mass spectrometry, the majority of the lipid A was found to be pentaacyl. The endotoxin activities of whole C. trachomatis EB and purified LPS were characterized in comparison with whole Salmonella minnesota R595 and with S. minnesota R595 LPS and lipooligosaccharide from Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Both C. trachomatis LPS and whole EB induced the release of tumor necrosis factor alpha from whole blood ex vivo, and C. trachomatis LPS was capable of inducing the translocation of nuclear factor kappa B in a Chinese hamster ovary fibroblast cell line transfected with the LPS receptor CD14. In both assays, however, C. trachomatis was approximately 100-fold less potent than S. minnesota and N. gonorrhoeae. The observation that C. trachomatis is a weak inducer of the inflammatory cytokine response correlates with the clinical observation that, unlike N. gonorrhoeae infection, genital tract infection with C. trachomatis is often asymptomatic. The ability of specific LPS antagonists to completely inhibit the tumor necrosis factor alpha-inducing activity of whole C. trachomatis EB suggests that the inflammatory cytokine response to chlamydia infection may be mediated primarily through LPS. This implies that the role of other surface protein antigens, at least in terms of eliciting the proinflammatory cytokine response, is likely to be minor.